“Thanks for your help, but …”

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“Thanks for your help,” Paul Bisbee told me when he finally heard from American Airlines. “But it really should not be required.”

Bisbee booked his flight on American back in September for a travel date in January. His case, and our involvement, raises some important questions about how we advocate for you.

After Bisbee booked his flight, something unexpected happened: he suffered a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery. He undoubtedly needs time to heal and rehabilitate before being able to embark upon his trip to Mexico, which was supposed to be a scuba diving vacation.

When Bisbee cancelled his trip, American issued a credit, which according to industry practice, is valid one year from the date of purchase, or in this case, September 2016.

“I won’t be ready to scuba dive by September,” he told our advocacy team. “I would like the airline to extend my credit until a year from the original travel date.”

Bisbee didn’t start out by contacting us. He did what we advise all consumers to do: Contact the company yourself.

Bisbee forwarded his paper trail, which included 10 separate exchanges with American’s customer service representatives. American refused to grant his request, insisting that his credit must be used within 365 days of the September 2015 purchase date.

“I am on complete disability until April 29, and I feel my doctors will not clear me to scuba dive so soon,” Bisbee added. “American refuses to extend the date, which I don’t understand, as it will cost them nothing.”

Frankly, it’s something I don’t understand either.

The airline industry has developed a voucher system, which it often uses to compensate travelers for inconveniences caused by a variety of circumstances, ranging from unforeseen cancellations and delays to cabin class downgrades — all things that affect real travelers in their real lives.

But the airlines don’t want to use real currency to compensate its customers. Hence the voucher. Unlike cash, the voucher is beset with all kinds of limitations, including lack of transferability and an expiration, which is typically a year from the issuance of the voucher. (Redemption rates for airline vouchers are said to be less than 10 percent, industry-wide. In other words, airlines only have to honor 1 in 10 vouchers they issue — a system clearly favoring the airline.)

When a passenger initiates the cancellation of a non-refundable ticket, regardless of the reason, we find ourselves back in voucherland, but the voucher is even more limited, because it expires one year from the date of the ticket purchase.

We contacted American to ask for a review of the case. We pointed out that Bisbee had already been through the nine circles of American Airlines’ customer service. And we pointed out the foolishness of this time limitation.

“I understand most airlines, including AA, have established the one-year from date of purchase policy for validity of credits,” I wrote to our airline contact. “However, where tickets can be purchased well in advance of travel dates, in most cases up to 11 months prior, a one-year extension from the purchase date is in some circumstances very limiting for the passenger.”

And I left it at that.

A few days later, American contacted me to let me know that the request for an extension had been granted as a courtesy.

Interesting choice of words.

That’s American’s way of saying, “We’re granting the request, because you asked.”

Let me be clear: We have a good relationship with American. They listen to the requests of consumers whose concerns we raise. But as Bisbee himself said, my involvement shouldn’t be required. If American can extend courtesies at my request, surely they could have done it at Bisbee’s request, and much sooner. Not as a matter of courtesy, but as a matter of policy.

This is the challenge we face as an organization. How can we bring to light issues which are problems for consumers every single day? We can’t get every passenger’s voucher extended. And we can’t win back the time Bisbee spent shaking his head at every boilerplate response he received from American. But we’re working on our new mission statement, and trying to advance the consumer’s cause.

And we hope that you’ll join us.

Should Paul Bisbee's voucher have been extended by American Airlines?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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  • Joe Farrell

    If Mrt. Bisbee expects to need more than a year to recover from bypass surgery then, with all due respect, he needs to find a new rehab unit and a new surgeon and make a stronger effort. There have been people running marathons 6 months after surgery. . . .

  • sirwired

    I think a policy to make the credit valid for one year from the original travel date makes perfect sense. Limiting credit validity to one year from the original purchase date is too limiting to advance purchase customers.

    That said, I can understand why they do this; advance-purchase fares ALREADY barely break-even (most profits come from last-minute fares). Being able to pocket the money from “lost” advance purchase customers is built into the cost-model. Extending credits to be usable based on the planned travel date won’t be free.

    Although I’m with Joe. He should ask his medical team if he should be cleared to scuba dive in time. There’s no blanket reason why he couldn’t, although certainly every case is unique.

  • Mel65

    I’m not an accountant or an auditor or anything so I guess I don’t understand the one year rule or rather the reason behind it. Is it because they want to clear the books of that fare profit/loss or whatever within a calendar or a corporate fiscal year or what? But of course since no one said it yet, I have to say it: This sounds like a pretty special trip, so why didn’t he have insurance? Then they could have paid him back and he could have rebooked the trip when he felt up to it, rather than counting on and expecting the airlines to accommodate his situation.

  • Tracy T.

    Here’s what bothers me about this, and why I voted no:
    ““I won’t be ready to scuba dive by September,” he told our advocacy team. “I would like the airline to extend my credit until a year from the original travel date….Unlike cash, the voucher is beset with all kinds of limitations, including lack of transferability and an expiration, which is typically a year from the issuance of the voucher.”

    But there’s nothing that says you have to use the voucher for the same flight/destination. If you can’t scuba dive now, use the credit to go somewhere else! In the one year of validity is there really no where else he wants or plans to travel to? I say this because it seems he’s not medically cleared to dive, but otherwise well enough to travel in the next few months.

    I’m sorry he has to miss a trip he was looking forward to, but that’s not the airlines fault. Go somewhere else!

  • flutiefan

    YES. Thank you!

  • Jeff W.

    I was also thinking the same thing.

    If he is unable to travel at all, he could also use the credits to fly someone in to see him. He might have family or friends that may want to see him during his recovery time. Those people could then reimburse him in cash, if money is tight.

  • KanExplore

    The issue, I think, is that airlines simply don’t have a team of investigators to vet the validity of every claim for an exception. If the policy is, “we’ll make an exception if you have a sad story to tell,” then it’s pretty evident every person will have a sad story to tell – true or not. I wish the writer the best in his recovery.

  • AJPeabody

    You don’t know how long his recovery could be. How much damage did his heart suffer before the bypass operation? How well did his sternal incision heal? Does he have other problems (lungs, diabetes) that slow recovery?

  • Regina Litman

    365 days? They’re even more stingier this year. It’s a leap year! Why not 366 days for travel originally booked from March 1, 2015, through February 29, 2016?

    (This is meant to be a tongue-in-cheek response.)

  • Joe Farrell

    you’re right – I don’t – but – its mind over matter. If you think you’ll have a slow recovery then you will have a slow recovery. . . .

  • MarkKelling

    Most travel credits are only valid for use by the person named on the voucher. In other words, only you can buy a ticket for yourself with the voucher.

  • Michael__K

    “I can understand why they do this; advance-purchase fares ALREADY barely break-even”

    There have been many studies on when is the best time to purchase a plane ticket, and they all come up with answers in the range of 1 to 4 months before the travel date.

    Granted, this passenger booked around 4 months in advance of travel.

    But the passengers who book 6+ months (or 11 months!) in advance are generally paying higher than average fares, and they often endure multiple schedule changes, and it also benefits the airline to hold on to those funds and earn interest for such a lengthy period before providing any service.

    So I doubt there is a legitimate cost-model issue there. It’s just better for the bottom line to have the credits expire sooner rather than later.

  • Annie M

    Travel insurance would have made none of this necessary. You really should write a column on what travel insurance can do and how half of your complaints would be solved if people bought either refundable tickets or travel insurance?

  • Annie M

    They are lucky the airlines give them ANYTHING for a non-refundable ticket. And then they complain a year isn’t enough. None of this would have been needed if he bought travel insurance – would have gotten a refund with the right policy and none of this nonsense would have happened.

  • Annie M

    I was thinking the same thing. How about go to Mexico to relax and recuperate? What if you will never be able to dive again?

  • Tom McShane

    Wow. Tough audience today.

  • Flatlander

    AA should have said “Sorry, but we stand by our rules” instead of making an exception to avoid negative publicity because a consumer advocate with lots of followers to their blog became involved. You can’t advocate for everyone and the rest of us plebes would have had to find a way to work within the rules or suck it up and buy a new ticket. People who are being treated unfairly are one thing, and people asking for the rules to be bent are another.

  • cscasi

    We are not all the same. Just because someone rehabilitates in three months, someone else may well take a year or more; just for the reasons AJ brought out.

  • cscasi

    On the other hand, if you think you will have a speedy recovery, you may or may not. I am not convinced that mind will necessarily heal one faster in all cases.

  • cscasi

    And the number of people not going on their scheduled trips will increase because they know that they can ask for and receive an extension. If you want that available to you, then buy a refundable fare or better yet, buy good trip insurance.

  • Extramail

    Isn’t he already having to pay a change fee? Why do I have to be penalized twice just because I gave my money to the airlines months before I use their service?

  • Extramail

    Really? Dr. Farrell, you have examined this patient?

  • Extramail

    But, the insurance policies are wildly variable as to what it will cover and what it will not based on what you are willing to pay for it. Thus, I think a blanket column would not cover all possibilities. That is also why Chris still gets folks wanting his help with the travel insurance they did buy because it doesn’t cover what was expected. Legalese!